Chinese art is boosted by the company Powerlong Group’s brand new museum in Shanghai.

Besides Powerlong Painting Academy, Powerlong Art Center, XU Gallery and Powerlong Auction, Powerlong Art Museum is the new initiative in the arts and culture industry being fostered by the Chinese commercial colossus.

Powerlong Art Museum. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

The Powerlong Art Museum. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Contrasting with the international outlook of other art patrons who have opened private museums in Shanghai, the 65-year-old founder of the Powerlong Group, Xu Jiankang, focuses on national artists working in traditional forms at the recently opened Powerlong Museum.

A press release announces that the museum will present a “systematic study of the current development of Oriental aesthetics in the present era, […] a completely different path from the mainstream in the Western world.” The neighbouring Hongqiao airport appropriately serves mainly domestic destinations, chiming with the museums focus on Chinese art. Inevitably, some artists represented are also international figures. Prominent at the entrance to the museum are the signature chrome ‘scholar rocks’, or ‘onjiashanshi, of conceptual artist Zhan Wang, that have also become ubiquitous as an urbane Chinese flavour in many international settings. Xu has also sponsored fireworks performances by New York-based Cai Guoqiang, such as Sky Ladder (2015), which became the subject of a Netflix movie, Sky Ladder (2016), directed by Kevin Macdonald.

8.jpg Shanghai Powerlong Museum main atrium.

Shanghai’s Powerlong Museum main atrium. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

The inaugural exhibition entitled “Tracing the Past and Shaping the Future” comprises more than 300 works by 80 artists. Many of those in the show have a high status domestically but outside China and its diaspora there is little general understanding of the ink painting form, or consensus as to its status. Some artists, such as Han Meilinwho paints appealing animals with a few arabesque brushstrokes, challenges the comfort zone of connoisseurs of a transatlantic mindset. Rigorous adherence to the defined parameters of an unwavering historic practice, and a shared collective outlook counter a Western vision of artists who must innovate – and be detached. The range of work, sprawling through the museum’s 23,000 square metres of exhibition space, opens visitors eyes to vitality and diversity within formal constraints.

Powerlong’s mission is “to assume the responsibility of the public aesthetic education”, and to, “pay attention to the combination of art and life, to create a fusion of art, life, and aesthetic sense of space”. A few pieces of furniture and design items are found in the galleries as a setting for paintings and this links the museum’s outlook to central European museums that, following the spirit of Germany’s definitive Bauhaus arts education, are more likely than their US counterparts to put fine art side by side with applied art. In the future, the museum intends to display sculpture, architecture, gardening, video and opera, besides painting and writing art. The latter has a central place, because calligraphy grounds brush art in everyday life, in language and common meanings.

6.jpg Guan Liang, Pouncing on a Precious Butterfly (date unknown)

Guan Liang, ‘Pouncing on a Precious Butterfly’, date unknown. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Vast and spectacular atrium spaces are appropriately conceived in the monochrome palette of ink and paper. Traditional brush painting tends to be relatively modest in scale. It is often contemplative, and intended for an intimate setting. This creates tension with the ambition of the architecture. A feeling of vulnerability pervades many of the displays, where aching subtlety does not compete with the context. Ultimately, this proves to be a potent reminder of general ecological vulnerabilities, one of the pervading anxieties of the present era. Expanses of plate glass and white stone contrast with paintings connected to the spirit of nature, reminding the visitor of the fragility of this essence in the contemporary world.

Another feature of the museum is a spiraling ramp. It is a quotation of the famous rotunda in architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. The citation is significant, as the US museum’s patron, Solomon R. Guggenheim (1861–1949), also originally championed art with spiritual aims, in the form of nonobjective abstraction.

5.jpg Zhan Wang’s sculpture in Powerlong Museum rotunda

Zhan Wang’s sculpture in Powerlong Museum rotunda. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

1.jpg Lu Yanshao, Two Horse Rock Pass 1977

Lu Yanshao, ‘Two Horse Rock Pass’, 1977. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Powerlong Museum’s agenda is also expressed in the paintings themselves, such as Lu Yanshao’s Two Horse Rock Pass (1977). The painting shows a procession of partisans with red flags approaching a pavilion in a mountainous landscape. A small group has held back, stopping to admire the titular natural arrangement of rocks, demonstrating how natures force inspires revolutionary zeal. Executed in pale mineral colours at the end of the Cultural Revolution, it is inward looking, disassociated with other contemporary art produced outside China. Such radical disjuncture makes for much interesting comparison.

10.jpg Deng Fen, Spring Breeze, a White Horse Approaches 1959

Deng Fen, ‘Spring Breeze, a White Horse Approaches’, 1959. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

1962 was the year Andy Warhol produced the series Dollar Bills, his first works using screen printing, while in 1955 Jasper John’s painted American Flag. Both have been influential pronouncements of contemporaneity in the West, relating to the conditions of their times. In the trajectory of brush painting, the relationship to nature is foremost. For example, in the delicate nostalgia of works such as Deng Fen’s Spring Breeze, a White Horse Approaches (1959), where three women react to the arrival of a mounted visitor. Executed at the time of China’s push for rural industrialisation, the poetic title suggests natural dynamics beyond what is immediately shown. The affairs of the world are expressed indirectly through the juxtaposition of image and poetry.

2.jpg Huang Binhong, Searching for Mountain Streams 1953

Huang Binhong, ‘Searching for Mountain Streams’, 1953. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

In other works, such as Huang Binhong’s Searching for Mountain Streams (1953), it is possible to conceive of some formal equivalence with Tachist works from the same period by French abstract artists such as Henri Michaux or Pierre Soulages. However, the manner of the work actually relates to far older sources in the landscapes of the Song and Ming Dynasty. There is, across time and place, a concurrent objective, to show more than only outward appearances.

7.jpg Liang Shijin, Pine Tree 2005-7 installation view at Shanghai Powerlong Museum

Liang Shijin, ‘Pine Tree’, 2005-7, installation view at Shanghai Powerlong Museum. Photo: Andrew Stook. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Recent works retain connections to the motifs of the past. Liang Shijin’s Pine Tree (2005-7) is a full-scale fac-simile, its needles precisely carved and its form assembled from sections of golden wood, bolted together. By reconstructing the pine, a symbol of longevity, steadfastness and self-discipline, the work highlights the noble task of restoring these values. Pin Shi’s Blossom Appears (2015) is a humorous sculptural rendition of a traditional scene. The ungainly creation could have been undertaken in the straggly area of light industrial fabricators that exists in the proximity of the museum – just the target audience that the Museum intends to enlighten and inspire.

12.jpg Pin Shi, Blossom Appears 2015

Pin Shi, ‘Blossom Appears’, 2015. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

The museum’s director Li Xiaofeng comments:

Chinese cultural identity is important as China integrates with the world. That will be the topic we will continue to center our exhibitions around, and invite audiences to anticipate the development of Chinese culture over the next 100 years.

The curator of the inaugural exhibition sounds a more strident tone in an introductory text, referring to the marginalisation of Chinese art as injury to “the style and demeanor in the soul”, and the aims of the exhibition as “a traditional regeneration towards the future”.

As China’s importance in the world grows, Powerlong Museum has an ambitious mission to draw a new cultural map that will bring national contemporary art back into the lives of ordinary people.

Andrew Stooke


Related topics: Chinese artists, Asia expandspromoting art, newsmuseum shows, events in Shanghai

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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